After an extremely cold night (what a dramatic contrast with the previous night's stifling heat in Kochi) and noisy - a coachload of teenagers arrived at 11pm and seemed to spend an hour calling to each other up and down the stairwell, I set off from Munnar, again in the car driven by Salim (another 1900 rupees to Coimbatore, but preferable to a six and a half hours to cover 130 kms in a local bus over a road which is one of the worst I have come across in India.
My trip has been made by having such nice driver. Anybody going to Munnar, look up Salim, mobile number 9447512114. His English is sufficient to answer lots of queries and he worked hard at pointing things out to me, and at the same time wasn't too chatty. He is one of a tiny group of Moslems in Munnar. He explained that both his father and father in law had been fishermen (lots of the Keralan fishermen seem to be moslems), but when he was young his family moved to Munnar. We talked about the usual things: families - he has a daughter of 10 and a son of 4 - the fact that we don't have to cough up a dowry for our daughters (he said his wife came with a lakh of gold), and indeed that we did not pay for Kate's wedding!
Salim speaks Tamil as well as Mayalayam. When I asked him why, he explained that 90% of the population in Munnar was now Tamil. As he said yesterday, as the Keralans stop working on the plantations, their places are taken by poorer people from Tamil Nadu. Poorer because Keralan land is richer, thanks to the wetter climate. Wages (I couldnt make out whether these were official, average or whatever, but even so, they are a good indicator) in Tamil Nadu are 80 rupees for men and 40 for women, while in Kerala they can expect to get 150 and 100 respectively. When you remember that 100 rupees is 1.12 pounds, this is still very paltry. Of course things are cheaper here, but even so...Salim looked at my Nokia mobile and said it would cost 4000 rupees in India. So how do they ALL manage to have a mobile??
The scenery as we left Munnar was even more breathtaking than the previous day. Unfortunately my photos won't do it justice: it was often difficult to stop, the typical Indian haze is difficult to reproduce, and the sheer grandeur is impossible to portray. We travelled for hours through the mountains, the highest of which, Ana Munar, is 2695 metres. (Once again I was struck by how small the Cevennes seem in comparison.) The tea plantations go up the precipitous slopes of the mountains, and just the tops are exposed to show a continuous range of red and black rock. Apart from tea workers plodding along the road to work, the countryside was miraculously empty for India.
Gradually the tea plantations gave way to more rugged scenery mile upon mile of dense green forest in the valleys below and still giant mountain tops above. We passed through a national game park - sadly but not surprisingly I didnt see anything. I didn't expect to see one of the now very rare tigers, but I had hoped for the odd elephant.
Salim showed me plantations of sandalwood, being developed by the government to restore the supply diminished by notorious sandalwood smugglers. The most famous, Verpeena, operates in Karnataka,to the north of Kerala, but there are still lots of 'small Verpeenas' said Salim. The sandalwood is actually a rather unpreprocessing tree, unlike the more plentiful tamarind trees in the same woods. These are used to make the local curry.
Then, soon after Salim told me that we had crossed back into Tamil Nadu, we descended down from the mountains, onto the familiar Tamil Nadu flat plain, back in the land of rice, sugar and palms. By midday we had reached Coimbatore.
Coimbatore. My father's birthplace
I should have been more drawn to find out more about where Dad was born and any information that might have been available with birth records, but Coimbatore is as unappealing as the guide books say: yet another vast, noisy hectic Indian city, centre of the textile industry. I passed a few factories and had read in the guidebooks that they are diversifing into synthetics, and ravaging nearby countryside by growing inappropriate trees needed for their production, upsetting the delicate eco-system.
I did stay long enough to have a nightmarish time in the railway station. I wanted to book the tickets to and from Ooty, where I go tomorrow, but also the tickets from Coimbatore to Mumbai (from where my plane goes next week). I had thought of taking trains up to Goa, stopping for a day or two to recover (hopefully meeting up with Claire again) and then on to Mumbai (another 12 hour journey).
To reserve tickets you have to complete lengthy reservations forms, including the number of any train to be taken. So first I had to queue at the tourist information office, to get the train numbers. This proved complicated as there is no direct service from Coimbatore up the west coast: I would have to take three trains over a couple of nights to get to Goa. Anyhow, armed with train numbers, I then had to battle (no queue) at a counter where the woman issued reservations forms (why couldnt they have them on a stand?).
Then I had to complete them - one for each train - and then join a third queue for reservations. The entire reservation hall was crammed with people queuing, the queue snaking backwards and forwards to the entrance. My heart sank - and then after 15 minutes, I spotted one counter indicated 'Credit cardholders/Passholders/Senior Citizens' and better still, the queue was much smaller, and had chairs. Even so, I had been in the station for nearly two hours by the time I got to the front - only to be told that the train to Mumbai is totally full. All that for nothing. There is a definite downside to having cheap fares in a country where people are so passionate about travelling.
Helpful Salim tried but failed to find the AirDeccan (India's Ryanair) office, but this is something I will have to resolve in the next couple of days. Otherwise my last few days in India are going to be taken up with the practicalities of getting the 800 plus kilometres up to Mumbai. I kick myself having booked to leave by Mumbai before planning my itinerary; I was attracted by the incredibly cheap (non-changeable) fare.
Salim persuaded me to take his car a further 60 kms (another 600 rupees) to Mettupalaram, in order to pick up the narrow gauge railway at 7am tomorow, rather than at 5am in Coimbatore. To make up for this extravagance I'm staying in a rather seedy hotel, with questionably clean sheets and bathroom (complete with someone else's toothbrush). Mine is a 'de luxe' room (presumably because it has a fan) and costs 300 rupees (nearly4 quid) rther than the standard 200 rupees.